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Environment

In Major Breakthrough, Scientists Discover Bacteria That Can Produce Energy

Flickr: GW Solar Institute; Sakimoto

For decades, scientists have been trying to mimic photosynthesis for an alternative energy source, and researchers at Berkeley recently made a breakthrough.

A team of scientists were able to manipulate bacteria to essentially grow mini solar panels.

The resulting organism is 80% efficient at harnessing the sun’s light, which is four times greater than commercial solar power and six times greater than plant photosynthesis.

Global Citizen campaigns on the Global Goals, which call for universal access to clean energy. Efforts like this solar bacteria could potentially bring electricity to the more than 1.2 billion people without it around the world. You can take action on these issues here.

If harnessed on an industrial scale, the bacteria could prove to be a viable energy source. It could potentially be put to use in developing countries with large rural populations, because all the bacteria would need are vats of liquid left out in the sun, according to a member of the team, Dr. Kelsey Sakimoto from Harvard University, who spoke with the BBC

"It's shamefully simple, we've harnessed a natural ability of these bacteria that had never been looked at through this lens," Sakimoto told the BBC.

The research, carried out at the University of California, Berkeley in the lab of Dr. Peidong Yang, was inspired by old microbiology studies.

Read More: Global Goal 7: Affordable & Clean Energy

While reading through decades-long research into microbiology, the team learned that some bacteria have natural defenses to some heavy metals. When exposed to these metals, the bacteria create tiny, crystal semiconductors.

The team then grew the bacteria in a liquid broth and introduced the heavy metal cadmium to the bacteria. After a few days, the hyper-photosynthetic organisms formed, capable of converting sunlight into energy.  

"There are so many different designs of these systems coming out and really we've only begun to explore the different ways we can combine chemistry and biology," Sakimoto told the BBC.

"And there's a real possibility that that there will be some upstart technology that will come out that will do better than our system,” she said.

Other forms of artificial photosynthesis have been developed in recent years. A team at Harvard University has created an artificial leaf that’s beginning to be deployed in real-world settings as an energy source. The leaf, however, has an efficiency rate of 10%, far below that of the recently discovered bacteria.   

Read More: For the World's 1 Billion People Without Electricity, Climbing Out Of Poverty Can Be Impossible

Globally, “energy poverty” causes people to live without reliable healthcare, food management systems, information technology, and much more.  

Solar energy has already proven to be effective at bringing electricity to underserved populations who don’t have access to energy grids, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In the years ahead, it’s possible that this form of bacterial solar energy will accelerate the solar revolution.